WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden told Congress Monday that he will end the two national emergencies to combat COVID-19 on May 11, as most of the world gets closer to closing nearly three years after they were first declared normality has returned.
The move to end the national emergency and public health declarations of emergency would formally restructure the federal response to the coronavirus to treat the virus as an endemic public health threat that can be managed by normal government agencies.
It comes as lawmakers have already ended elements of the emergencies that have kept millions of Americans insured during the pandemic. This, combined with drawing most of the federal COVID-19 relief funds, would also shift vaccine and treatment development out of direct federal government management.
Biden’s announcement comes in a statement opposing resolutions this week by House Republicans to end the emergency immediately. House Republicans are also preparing to launch inquiries into the federal government’s response to COVID-19.
Then-President Donald Trump first declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 13, 2020. The states of emergency have been repeatedly extended by Biden since taking office in January 2021 and are expected to expire in the coming months. The White House said Biden plans to briefly extend both until May 11.
“An abrupt end to the declarations of emergency would create widespread chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and physicians’ offices, and most importantly for tens of millions of Americans,” the Office of Management and Budget wrote in an administrative policy statement.
Congress has already softened the reach of the health emergency that has hit Americans most directly, as political calls for the declaration to end mount. Lawmakers have refused for months to meet the Biden administration’s call for billions more dollars to expand free COVID vaccines and testing. And the $1.7 trillion spending package passed and signed by Biden last year put an end to a rule preventing states from throwing people off Medicaid, a move expected to see millions of people out of action after Jan April will lose their cover.
The cost of COVID-19 vaccines is also expected to skyrocket once the government stops buying them, with Pfizer saying it will charge as much as $130 per dose. Only 15% of Americans have received the recommended updated booster shot that has been available since last fall.
Once the emergency is over, those with private insurance will have some out-of-pocket expenses for vaccines, tests and treatments, while those who are uninsured will have to pay these costs in full.
Legislators have expanded the flexibility of telemedicine introduced as COVID-19, directing healthcare systems across the country to regularly deliver care via smartphone or computer.
The Biden administration had already considered ending the emergency for the past year, but held back over concerns about a possible “winter spike” in cases and giving providers, insurers and patients ample time to prepare for its end.
A senior administration official said the three months to expiry would represent a transitional period during which the administration will “begin the process of smooth operational handling of the flexibilities made possible by the COVID-19 emergency declarations”. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the announcement before it was released.
More than 1.1 million people in the United States have died from COVID-19 since 2020, including about 3,700 in the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Case numbers are down after a slight spike over the winter holidays and are well below levels of the last two winters – although there has been a sharp fall in the number of tests being carried out for the virus and reported to health authorities.
Shortly before the White House announcement, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., accused the President of unnecessarily prolonging the public health emergency to take action to address issues such as canceling some federal student loan debt.
“The country has largely returned to normal,” Cole said Monday, introducing a Republican-backed bill calling for an end to the public health emergency. “Everyday Americans have returned to work and school with no restrictions on their activities. It is time the government recognized this reality: the pandemic is over.”